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SWCS School Board Discusses Opt-Out Numbers; Reopening Updates

Southwestern School Board Vice President Kurt Gustafson reviews the district’s reopening plan during Tuesday’s board of education meeting at the high school. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

Twelve percent of families in the Southwestern Central School District have opted out of in-person learning ahead of the upcoming 2020-21 school year.

That figure was one of several updates superintendent Maureen Donahue shared with the district’s board of education at a meeting Tuesday night in the high school’s multipurpose room.

“We’re dialing that down with the application process, but about 12% of our families are choosing a virtual-only option — more so at the elementary than at the high school,” Donahue said. “It’ll be semester-by-semester for high school. At the elementary school, if they do it, it will be for the year. To be honest with you, I don’t know that when the vaccine comes we’re all automatically going to go back to school. We all hope that, but realistically where that’s going to take us we’re just going to have to work through it as it comes.”

Board members reviewed the most up-to-date version of the district’s plan to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic after being given the green light by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday afternoon.

“It has changed once; it will change again,” Donahue said. “There are things, of course, that we have had to add.”

The district has already conducted several question-and-answer sessions for parents and families, several of which came before it released its plan to the general public on July 31.

“We wanted to make sure our families had the information before we went out public with a plan,” Donahue said. “We will be doing follow-ups but will separate it into elementary, middle and high school because of the differences in all three buildings. I can tell you we have fielded anywhere from 100 to 200 emails a day with questions. Every question is important to us and I can tell you that each question is very different and that we are trying very hard to make sure people ask questions.”

“It’s not a perfect plan,” she said of the district’s decision to utilize a hybrid model. “In a perfect world, we’d be bringing all of our kids back and we don’t feel that we can do that safely and decrease the density in our buildings and keep everyone safe.”

There will also be measurement periods.

“Oct. 1 is our first one to see how it’s going, what’s worked well, what’s not worked well,” she said. “We see it as though we’ve learned a significant amount of information from March, April, May, June in ways we have never done before and we continue. We really appreciate the feedback that’s been coming back.”

Some of that feedback has come from students, Donahue said.

“It’s probably the first time that I’ve gotten so many emails and a private Twitter message from the kids with questions they have,” she said. “They’re really good questions, too.”

Donahue also called the district’s work — in which it has been engaged since June — “heartwrenching.”

“This is the hardest and the most heartwrenching work I’ve ever been a part of knowing that when we come back, the safety of our kids is in our hands and the safety of our staff,” she said. “Administrative staff has been working non-stop. This is not Monday through Friday. They’ve been reading and trying to solve this. We’ve had lots of input on the plan across the board and continue to have feedback.”

She also explained the work that the district still needs to do.

“Just to give you an idea of the magnitude: $45,000 has been spent on barriers to start is what we purchased the other day,” she said. “We have masks, we have different sized masks, we have PPE equipment, we’re working with our nurses to get that extra equipment because they will be on the front line in terms of dealing with any positive case. Maybe we won’t have any cases: that would be the perfect world. But, we’re not going to be naive to not protect our staff. We continue to look at everything.”

The board’s vice president, Kurt Gustafson, commended Donahue and her staff on their work.

“It’s amazing the work that you and your staff have had to do in taking the time to dissect through the 150 pages of guidance from the state, the governor’s executive order, everything you’ve had to accumulate and filter down and put together a document like this that makes sense and is useful — my hat’s off to you and your staff,” he said. “On behalf of the kids, thank you for everything. It’s just amazing what you guys have done and I hope that the public and everyone appreciates the effort, the heart and the soul that went into the decisions for the work that you’ve done and the work you still have to go.”

“It’s going to be all hands on deck to pull this off — there is a lot,” Donahue said about reopening. “We’re still working on how we’re going to do the health checks. Every day, there are 10 new issues to sort and sift through. This is not the work of one person here. It’s been the work of multiple people.”

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